The 200th anniversary of President Lincoln's birthday was celebrated in 2009 across the nation. But popular Lincoln-related cultural works continue to bubble up in our entertainment markets. An extreme flight of fancy, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" , a 2010 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith has been turned into "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", the 2012 movie . In this film, President Lincoln personally kills many vampires initially to avenge the murder of family members. But the tale goes on to make a connection to slaves as the particular prey of the vampire underground !
A more historically based, creative work, "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln", is the novel written by Stephen L. Carter who is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of law at Yale. The book reconstructs a possible impeachment trial that could have taken place if President Lincoln had not been assassinated. While this provides the basis for the story, Mr. Lincoln only appears in the book a few times.
Instead the author uses two characters involved in the fictional impeachment process to develop the events in the book. A young Black woman named Abigail Canner, an Oberlin graduate who comes to the nation's capital intending to become a lawyer and her White fellow clerk, Jonathan Hilliman. In the Washington City of 1867, they sift through legal books, uncover clues and dodge assassins' attempts on their lives.
Professor Carter explains why he would write a story that questions the conduct of a president that most of us consider one of our great national heroes. "I should begin by explaining that I am a big Lincoln fan," Carter says, laughing. "I think Lincoln was our greatest president; I have no question about that. But at the same time, there were a lot of things that Lincoln did during his presidency, in order to win the Civil War, that could be called into question. And so my idea was to write a courtroom drama that was crafted around that possibility. The path I sketch in my fiction is one possible path history might have taken."
Mr. Lincoln's conduct during the Civil War period, was more complex than usually appreciated. Several law review articles have dealt with these questions that only occassionaly find their way into the realm of popular culture.
In 1998, the University of Arizona College of Law staged a mock trial, " The Impeachment of President Abrham Lincoln" , 40 Ariz. L. Rev. 351 (1998). Using noted American historians as prosecution and defense, with school alumni and students serving as members of the Senate as the jury. The trial "...was meant to examine whether Lincoln went to far in preserving the Union. Are there limits to what even a wartime president can do during a national emergency ?"
On February 6, 2009, in Chicago, the 7th Circuit Bar Association program, sponsored a program entitled " Abraham Lincoln His Legal Career and His Vision for America" . One panel at the program had University of Chicago law Professor Dennis J. Hutchinson and two panelists examined what might be considered the politically darker side of Lincoln's Civil War policies. Policies that continue to exert their influence on contemporary questions of presidential power and the protection of constitutional rights.
In his law review article, "Lincoln the 'Dictator'." ,55 South Dakota Law Review 284 (2010), Prof. Hutchinson states that "Although Congress ultimately sanctioned actions Lincoln took before they convened on the Fourth, critics, both then and now, have argued that the Union was preserved at the expense of the Constitution. Lincoln would and did deny the charge. How he actually behaved and how he explained his actions reveal a man deeply troubled by the accusations of despotism and the risks that his policies, well-intended to be sure, posed for the future."
A 2008 law review article "The Perpetuation of Our political Institutions : Lincoln, The Powers of the Commander In Chief", and The Constitution" by History professor Michael Les Benedict, point to the irony in Lincoln's strong critique of President Andrew Johnson's use of presidential power and Lincoln's subsequent conduct during the Civil War. He criticaly examins several key issues such as suspension of Habeas Corpus, unilateral blockade of Southern ports, trial of civilians by military issions,suppression of newspapers, the Emancipation Proclamation.
While documenting many of President Lincoln's extra-constitutional policies, Professor Benedict makes a broader judgement that "...Lincoln's record demonstrates that such powers can be wielded aggressively by a president with the right character without seriously eroding democracy and liberty." He quotes James G. Randall that "In a legal study of the war the two most significant facts are perhaps these," ... "the wide extent of the war powers; and, in contrast to that, the manner in which men in authority were controlled by the American people's underlying sense of constitutional government."
In the modern context, one may be left to wonder how well presidents without those qualities and citizens who are cowed into accepting losses of constitutional rights, will preserve that Constitution that was so hard- won.